From a rally on Saturday, AFT President Randi Weingarten '80 speaks to a crowd of graduate students.

Katie Sims / Sun Staff Photographer

From a rally on Saturday, AFT President Randi Weingarten '80 speaks to a crowd of graduate students.

March 29, 2017

AFT Considers Contesting Election Results After Alleged Code of Conduct Violations

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The American Federation of Teachers — the union with which Cornell Graduate Students United has affiliated — is considering contesting the results of the union recognition election due to alleged labor law violations by the University.

AFT published a statement Wednesday saying that it “questions the validity of the Cornell graduate union recognition election held this week” because “the administration committed a glaring swathe of labor law violations in the days leading up to and during the vote.”

The results of the election were ruled too close to call by the American Arbitration Association. In their counting of the ballots early Wednesday morning, 856 votes were cast in favor of CGSU and 919 were cast against. However, 81 challenge votes that are yet to be resolved rendered the results indeterminate.

“Cornell management sent a clear message in violation of the negotiated code of conduct and federal labor laws that the ends justify the means,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten ’80 in the release. “There should be no place for this kind of outright animus against colleagues in higher education. The administration has failed the entire Cornell community, and Cornell itself.”

In questioning the validity of the election, AFT claims that a pattern of administrative misconduct “chilled voters” and “polluted grad union election results,” particularly in the days leading up to and during the vote.

The misconduct AFT alleges constitute labor law violations that “compromised the ability of graduate students to make a free choice” in the election.

The University and CGSU agreed on a code of conduct for each party’s behavior both during the campaign process and during the election in a contract signed in May 2016 that aimed to ensure a free and fair election.

However, AFT contends that this code “was repeatedly violated by Cornell management.”

“As an alumna of the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations, I want to say how deeply disappointed I am with the egregious conduct of the university,” Weingarten said. “Cornell flagrantly violated the spirit of both the code of conduct we negotiated and federal labor law.”

AFT specifically points to emails from the University sent in the midst of the voting process — communications that Weingarten said were sent “with the intention of chilling and intimidating voters.”

The night before the election, the administration sent a special edition announcement to students. The Ask a Dean portion of the announcement responded to a student asking where the University would get the money to pay for added benefits should a union form.

The response from Senior Vice Provost and Dean of the Graduate School Barbara Knuth generated concern among union activists.

“All of these funds (external grants, and department and college budgets) are limited,” Knuth said in the response. “It is possible that significantly increased costs for these items could lead to reduced numbers of graduate students at Cornell, but faculty, departments, and colleges would need to make those decisions.”

The next day, graduate students received another email from the administration. Vice President of Human Resources Mary Opperman wrote to inform students that the University “received a report that a number of CGSU/AFT/NYSUT representatives have told eligible voters who don’t support the union not to vote” and that “the student making the report noted he felt threatened by the representatives,” the email read.

Another email sent that night by the University told graduate students that Cornell would cut healthcare costs during the next academic year — an issue that was central to CGSU’s campaign. This was a move that AFT believes served to “induce graduate students to vote against the union.”

For CGSU members, the administration’s actions further demonstrated the need for a union.

“There is a reason graduate workers are organizing all over the country, and that’s because unions are the only way to defend our rights and protect our research,” said Jane Glaubman, grad, in the release. “The administration’s actions show just how keen it is to deny us that power.”

The results of the union recognition will be determined within a month as the AAA works to resolve the validity of the challenge votes.

  • grad

    Hahahahahaha…. I know this is going to happen. They can’t lose… I looked up their website today and I saw a news with a title “We’re already winning”. What are they winning? They are losing! (not officially yet, but we all know the chance they win is very close to 0). Feel so glad this is over and no harassment any more!

    • Alan

      Hey “grad,” so Cornell violates labor law and you think there’s no problem here? Good luck in your working life

      • grad

        Let’s leave that to an arbitrator or judge. Neither of us can say whether Cornell violated or not. By the way, I’m very happy about my working life. Thank you…

      • A. Pinochet

        Get the commies off our campus. We all know that’s what they are.

        • Dustin

          Pinochet like the dictator? Union busting is disgusting

  • Grad 2

    This is such nonsense.

    For one, even if all the contested votes end up being counted, of the 81 contested ballots, if 71 are yes votes and just 10 are no votes, CGSU still loses. It’s not likely that this will turn around. Not to mention that several hundred non-voters didn’t choose this union either. You can nitpick about the rules, but there is no clear union endorsement there.

    Secondly, it’s the union’s incessant harassment and whining that cost them this vote. Given that just getting 50% + 1 of those voting would have won them recognition, the union could have won just by turning out their supporters. This was clearly their strategy – I’m one of those who were asked by union organizers to vote yes or else not at all, and I had one demand from me after the vote to tell them how I voted. Talk about a chilling effect. If the union still was rejected, it wasn’t because the administration scared off potential yes votes. It’s because enough no votes showed up to explicitly reject the union, despite the union’s bullying antics.

    Just let it rest, CGSU. You weren’t persuasive on the issues. You weren’t persuasive on tone. You lost. Don’t waste our time with more of this by weaseling your way in against the will of the majority.

    • Alan

      I don’t necessarily disagree with this point & I’m happy the election/campaign is over for now — but this isn’t the real issue.

      I’m completely stunned by how Cornell’s management has behaved and how they insist they don’t even have to follow the low. It’s really despicable. Union or not, and right now I don’t really care, I want these people to be accountable. We need laws to be enforced, so I hope some judge issues an urgent order to protect the integrity of our university

  • Tom

    Unions cry foul after every election they lose, which has been most of them in this country for the last several years.

    • Hateful bigot


      Scott Walker won his recall fair and square.

      His reelection saw the biggest Wisconsin voter turnout since the Eisenhower era.

      But unions cried foul after both.

  • Distressed Student

    Lets make it clear, AFT is actually asking for code of conduct violations? Not CGSU? Where is the local autonomy?

    • John

      Correction: CGSU and AFT are collaborating on next steps. Randi W had a call with CGSU’s organizing committee yesterday (committee is composed of only grad students) and indicated that she’d like to make a personal statement — on principle — as a Cornell ILR alum, then next step is CGSU consults w AFT and makes its own decision regarding what to do next. This should be corrected in the article

    • Lara

      Because AFT only gets back the money they invested in this if there is a union, that’s why it’s them and not cgsu…

  • Exchange Parts

    So if you know anything about labor law, this is actually relatively serious. The employer can’t offer or promise benefits in the critical period because it pollutes laboratory conditions. The arbitrator will likely set aside the results and order a new election. The code of conduct doesn’t preempt the NLRA in this instance.

    • Abe ’11

      They can make predictions that are rooted in economic reality, though they can’t make threats. It sounds like this is on the borderline

      • anothergrad

        I read that as an economic reality not a threat and it was actually something that I assumed could happen even before the “Ask a Dean” column. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realize that paying grads more **could** mean that there are fewer grads in total to compensate.

        • Hateful bigot

          Let me guess: your working on a STEM degree or something that requires logic?

          Please don’t post comments like this. You’re going to hurt the sensitive feelings of gender studies Ph.D. candidates here.

        • Hateful bigot

          Let me guess: you’re working on a STEM degree or something that requires logic?

          Please don’t post comments like this. You’re going to hurt the sensitive feelings of gender studies Ph.D. candidates here.

  • Grad

    Seriously? If we have to vote AGAIN, I’m going to change my YES vote to a NO vote.

  • Gradstudent

    I feel pretty disrespected by the thought that a bunch of emails affect how I vote. I think it is time for the union to analyze their mistakes. Constantly contacting people about and not being upfront about the dues lost them the election.

    • InsultedByCGSU

      Completely agree. The whole union tactic of gagging University officials so that we can make an “independent decision” is baffling to me. We’re grad students who daily read papers and consider the arguments made by the authors. To suggest that we can’t read both the University’s and CGSU’s opinions on unionization and make our own decisions is insulting. While I could support a union here in theory, I’ve found the leadership of CGSU to be abhorrent. They are only hurting their cause further in the long-term by allowing a third party (so much for local autonomy, eh?) to prolong this process. If another vote were held next week I’m confident CGSU would lose by an even larger margin.

      • anothergrad

        InsultedbyCGSU, thanks for saying exactly what I’m thinking more eloquently than I was going to! If they really think another election right now would get them a win they are seriously delusional. (But then again they haven’t struck me as being the most in touch with reality group thus far anyway, so maybe they really do think another election would result in a win.)

      • Paul G. Berry

        Hey Grad, I’m going to respond to this because it’s important. I’ve been pretty involved in the Union campaign/media and honestly I think (and most people in the union agree) that some real tactical mistakes were made. I can’t speak for everyone, but I certainly don’t want another election right now. My personal opinion is we need to take stock of what happened and reform the organization to represent our large, diverse bargaining unit. There are may opportunities to do this. We also need to reassess our relationship with AFT, and consider the most appropriate path forward that best represents our interest.

        The article should be corrected to note that CGSU and AFT are currently in consultation in order to determine the most appropriate course of legal action / whether any action will be taken.

        But I do want to respond directly to the comment about “gagging University officials” — this is not an accurate representation of what’s happened: Federal labor law under the National Labor Relations Act places restrictions on management during any union election in order to level the playing field. Cornell themselves agreed in the Code of Conduct we negotiated with them to be limited to one major mass communication — which was President Rawlings’ extended communication sent out the the entire Cornell community back in the fall (a bunch of ILR Faculty and the American Assoc of University Professors then responded in the media — highlighting shortcomings / typical anti-union tactics in his argument). My point is this: it’s not the case that CGSU is “gagging” Cornell officials, the reality is that Cornell is insisting that it does not have to follow federal labor law.

        Whether you support the union — or vehemently oppose it — I hope we can agree that Cornell’s management should not be absolved of the responsibility of simply honoring the National Labor Relations Act — basic legislation from 1935 that was designed to protect the rights of workers.

        Personally, I need a break from all this and look forward to getting back to doing my research post-campaign.

        But, Cornell also needs to be held accountable for their actions. We have a well recognized school of Industrial and Labor Relations — and it looks very bad for all of us that Cornell’s management does not respect the institutions that the university claims to study and advance. This is unacceptable.

        • Paul G. Berry

          If you’d like to read our post-election statement, it’s available here:

          Recognition Election Results Still Out
          “Although a clear majority of voters didn’t vote “yes,” we remain proud of what we’ve accomplished together. In 2002, only 30.0% of us voted “yes” for union recognition. Today, in 2017, we made it right to the precipice. We accomplished this together through passion and hard work. Cornell Graduate Students United was founded by a dozen members in 2014, and now organizes hundreds. Regardless of recognition, we’re not going anywhere. Our union is firmly established and will continue to advocate for our basic rights as workers. We’ll keep fighting for fairness, respect, and democracy at Cornell University, whether we’re at the bargaining table or not..” More at:

        • anothergrad

          Paul, I was not a union supporter as you can probably guess from reading my comments, but while I didn’t support the union I recognize that you and others put a lot of effort into the union and dedicated a lot of your time which as grad students we all have in limited supply. I am grateful that there are students who are willing to invest a lot of time and effort in a cause they feel strongly about (even if I don’t agree with the cause) and think that the university is overall better off for having grads who are passionate about both sides of the unionization debate. My apologies if my comment above was rude! Best wishes to you as you return to your research.

        • Hateful bigot

          ==> “Federal labor law under the National Labor Relations Act places restrictions on management during any union election in order to level the playing field. ”

          Gee, I wonder who helped write that federal law that places restrictions on management opening its mouth. Doesn’t management have its right to free speech, protected by the First Amendment?

          ==> “We have a well recognized school of Industrial and Labor Relations — and it looks very bad for all of us that Cornell’s management does not respect the institutions that the university claims to study and advance. This is unacceptable.”

          We know you will be back. It’s like the EU referendums back in the day. When voters rejected the EU, votes were held again. It’s a one-way ratchet.

          Michigan is a right-to-work state – something that would have been unimaginable when Randi Weingarten graduated from Cornell.

          Abood is going to get overturned once version 2.0 of the Friedrichs vs CTA case goes to the SCOTUS.

          Sit back and enjoy the ride, AFT.

  • Hateful bigot

    As usual with unions, it’s heads they win, tails you lose.

    Piss off commies.

  • DJT

    Contesting a vote and demanding recount? Hmmmm sounds familiar…

  • Ezra Tank

    I think it was the Russians!

  • Steve

    I kind of hope we have another election. The guy in charge was cute.

  • A B

    What lost CGSU the election was a bunch of people who, in their words, advocate values like workplace democracy, fairness, and collective power but in the voting booth marked “No.” If you ever want anything to change politically, it is going to require a significant amount of discomfort beyond being “harassed” by phone calls or house visits that you could have, at any time, answered or written in explicitly to stop. It boggles the mind that people are so willing to trust an administration with a ton of institutional power and so easily condemn graduate organizers and staff members from AFT/NYSUT who were pretty vanilla in their outreach methods. And if Cornell grads are seriously uncritical enough to trust “At What Cost” or “Ask a Dean” as having the “best interests of grads” in mind without nefarious ideological motivation, then the whole world is seriously screwed…because this means even the supposed “brightest and best” at Cornell have been turned in to sheeple, eager to please their overlords and unwilling to seize any tools available for asserting their power.

    • AnnoyedGrad

      This condescending attitude of CGSU members is probably exactly what turned so many voters off. Don’t you think it’s possible that grad students who valued democracy and fairness came to the conclusion that CGSU as it was currently constituted, with it’s flawed constitution the consistent refusal of its leaders to engage in debate with At What Cost, was not going to actually achieve these things. Get better leadership, and try again in a few years.

    • Arthur

      Then the question becomes, why did those who share your values of workplace democracy, fairness, and collective power vote “No?” Tone.

      As a recent alum who was a regular contributor to this paper and a (elected) campus queer activist, I followed this campaign only through mediated channels. I put my money on a “No” vote when I saw angry-looking 20-somethings with a banner and bandanas splashed across the front page. I can speak only to mediated messaging, which I’d reckon is how a good number, probably a decisive number, of “No” voters reached their conclusion.

      CGSU’s tactical errors rest with turnout and tone. The turnout was too high and the tone too strident. Too #NoChill, too #Extra.

      “If you ever want anything to change politically, it is going to require a significant amount of discomfort beyond being “harassed” by phone calls or house visits that you could have, at any time, answered or written in explicitly to stop.”

      Not really, no. At least not at Cornell. Political change that can only be enacted through existing systems is best achieved discreetly. Politics is value-neutral and ALL systems dynamics.

      This election was decided by those who “came out” to vote, emphasis on “came out” insofar as it was decided by those motivated enough to set aside time to walk to a polling place and vote. The winning formula is simple. Motivate the right voters to turn up, keep the wrong voters at home, and mitigate the risk of flipping otherwise nonvoters to a “No” by keeping your most broadly public message as neutral and contained as possible. And never be so polarizing as to motivate the wrong voters to show up. Be especially conscious of the formula when the election is as high-stakes and controversial as a unionization vote. That means engaging strategically and not assuming the existence of unconfirmed popular support that you might motivate through knocking on doors and making calls.

      CGSU got the formula wrong. It misjudged popular support. My guess is that nearly all “Yes” voters turned up. Inadvertently, by overestimating popular support, it pushed its message too widely and too strongly and reached those unfavorable to it with an unpalatable tone that motivated more “No” voters to turn up than would have had this been a calmer, less ideologically activist campaign.

      CGSU overreached. Vigorous campaigning to secure the x-number of signatures required to put the motion to vote was warranted, but following that hurtle the campaign should have turned inward towards its base, let alone turned outward through a rally to deliver said signatures. Counterintuitive seeming, yes, but as a commenter noted, all CGSU needed was 50% +1. Had that been achieved the turnout could have been 50% or 15%, and it would not have mattered. Winning an election requires getting the – right – voters to the ballot box. Drum up support but drum up support safely, to mitigate the risk of simply drumming up noise. CGSU’s mandate would have been debated, but it would have enjoyed the position of being able to earn a mandate over time through effective action rather than being shut-out from that opportunity.

      “If the union still was rejected, it wasn’t because the administration scared off potential yes votes. It’s because enough no votes showed up to explicitly reject the union” – that’s spot-on. Your ideas weren’t rejected, per se. Your campaign and tone were.

      The problem with adopting an oppositional, political tone, “Worker’s Wednesdays” and your language above, “sheeple” etc., is that it risks isolating more voters than it embraces when disseminated widely. CGSU shaded this election too polarizingly. As advancing fair, ethical politics, yes, but implicit associations to still-fringe ideologies of “socialism” and the like are hard to shake when you are young academics marching for Worker’s Rights.

      CGSU got this wrong by becoming too drunk off the virtues of advancing a progressive ideology instead of understanding that when you are running a campaign, your primary focus is simply to win. It got the formula wrong because it misjudged its level of support.

      Just because they won doesn’t mean they’re right. Just because you lost doesn’t mean you’re wrong.

      But now, mitigate the risk of polarizing “No” voters any further by conceding the outcome, not aggravating it, graciously offer to cooperate, make a good show of it, and then wait out the cold until whenever the circumstances for a vote present themselves next.

      Then be politicians. Not activists.

      • Lara

        Thank you for writing this comment, it’s helped to straighten out a lot of thoughts in my head and is very insightful!

        • Sam

          Well it’s an interesting and thoughtful take, but I disagree (there’s a lot of internal campaign dynamics not visible from the outside). But the goal wasn’t to be hilary clinton — as Arthur thinks it should have been — cautious, calculating, whatever. And I doubt this strategy would have been any more effective. What really went wrong was AFT staff got in their heads that incessant house visits and phone calls were a good idea, my impression is that in the trump-era the campaign message hit home, but the on the ground tactics flopped. hopefully lessons learned, and let’s not forget about the shameful admins. they better get knuth outta here, absolute disgrace

      • tom

        So you are advocating the DeBlasio approach. Get elected with 15% of eligible voters casting ballots. And liberals claim to have a monopoly on democracy!

  • VetStudent

    I think everyone who believes that the Cornell administration violated the agreement should go back and carefully review the agreement. Section 1C outlines 4 restrictions on administration, faculty, and PIs. These restrictions include coercively initiating conversations with graduate assistants about joining the union, preventing grads’ ability to freely associate with the union, holding department or lab meetings to discourage union activity, and sending letters and emails to individual graduate students advising them on joining or supporting the Union. That’s it. Then the agreement explicitly says, “other than the specific guidelines listed above, nothing in this Agreement shall be interpreted as limiting academic freedom and/or preventing Faculty, PIs and Administration or otherwise exercising their free speech rights consistent with the NLRA.” The Ask a Dean responses, even if they were not actually submitted by grad students as some union supporters claim (which seems fairly unlikely in light of 919 No votes), are consistent with the Deans exercising their free speech rights as permitted by the agreement.

    The AFT clearly knows this already, as RW said that Cornell violated the “spirit” of the agreement, and not the letter. It seems they think the spirit of the agreement does not permit free speech for the administration. I wish the AFT would explain how the administration could have exercised their right to free speech without violating the spirit of the agreement. I suspect they would only be happy with complete silence from everyone who is anti-unionization.

    As a professional student paying for her education, I’m really surprised by how many graduate students feel the need to milk more benefits out of the administration. I pay for my own health insurance, and if I wanted dental insurance, I could pay for it, as could all of you. The money you receive is not meant to be a salary; it is a stipend, meant to cover living costs as you complete your education. It is a privilege for you to be here and receive that stipend. You knew the deal when you decided to go to graduate school. If you want the University to be full service and provide you with child care and other amenities, guess what- you will need more administrators!

  • Sam

    Hey vet, some folks don’t think it’s the natural condition of the world to spend 5-7 or more years working here not taking classes almost the whole time, having cornell claim rights to whatever you produce, paying the taxes, etc.. so your self-righteous condescending attitude isn’t appreciated. look at who does the work and who benefits, what we get is money paid for services rendered, clear as day. i’m not for people graduating from professional programs with crazy levels of debt either, but work is work and cornell’s gone way too far benefiting from not calling its workers workers, then filing bogus grievances against the union in the election, and the ask a deans which yes do count as intimidation, even if nothing else are pathetic. the responses are absolutely fear-mongering alternative fact garbage, it’s unreasonable to think the phd admins don’t know better, shameful on the institution and insulting to grads that they’re sending them out

  • Dustin Unfeld

    Yeah that was some real trump administration bullshit from the admins